By Jeff Mulhollem and Chuck Gill, Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK – With the defending National Football League champion Green Bay Packers having another great season and securing home-field advantage in the NFL’s upcoming playoffs, millions of people will by looking at Allen Johnson’s work when they watch the games.
No doubt the fields manager of famous Lambeau Field will have the playing surface in top shape when the Packers host their first playoff game, and he will employ expertise he gained from Penn State in the process. He is a graduate of the University’s Advanced Turfgrass Management Certificate Program.
Johnson grew up watching the Green Bay Packers with his dad, but little did he know that one day he’d be working for them. And, thanks to the Turfgrass Science program offered by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, he developed the technical knowledge needed to be promoted while he continued working.
“I basically fell into this work,” he said. “It was really by chance.”
After graduating with a degree in public administration from Northern Michigan University, Johnson’s first job was at an insurance company. Unsatisfied, he took a temporary construction job helping to rebuild Lambeau Field. He soon was hired as assistant manager before being promoted to his current position as fields manager.
“I did not have that specific college-level, turfgrass-management education,” Johnson explained. “I felt it definitely would benefit me to have that.”
That’s when he turned to the Advanced Turfgrass Management Certificate Program through the Penn State World Campus, the online division of the University. It offers more than 70 of the most in-demand degree and certificate programs, with career-focused curricula built on the latest industry trends in fields such as education, business, engineering, technology, health care and others.
World Campus features highly respected Penn State faculty creating a fully supported, online learning environment with academically rigorous programs. The offerings include the latest research findings in a collaborative learning experience where students interact with faculty and classmates from around the world.
The advanced turfgrass certificate program is a comprehensive, 30-credit course of study intended for those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field. Johnson was able to complete the certificate in two years, finishing in February 2002. The online format allowed him to complete his certificate at his own pace while working.
“Learning technical information helped me a lot,” Johnson said. “I developed good relations with professors, and I still keep in touch. It also gave me more credibility when pitching ideas. They know I have an education to back it up.”
Now in his 15th season with the Green Bay Packers, Johnson said the best part of his job is the freedom he has to maintain the fields the way he feels is best. He said nurturing the grass at Lambeau Field, famously nicknamed “the Frozen Tundra,” is quite a challenge because the eight-game home regular season and two home preseason games can wear down natural turf.
Complicating the challenge is the fact that most grasses start to go dormant by the third week in October, and most NFL fields are getting pretty worn by the end of the season.
In Green Bay, grasses stop growing about mid-September — practically the beginning of the football season — so most of the season is played on dormant turf. The winter months can be especially harsh in Green Bay. “We do everything we can to keep the grass the best it can be,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his crew use a system of sand-based field with synthetic fibers underneath to keep the surface stable when the field wears thin. They’ve also been trying out an artificial growing light that is in full effect this season. “We try to lengthen the growing season so the turf can go into the winter months in better shape,” he said.
Alfred Turgeon, professor of turfgrass management, has spent 40 years in college classrooms and has 10 years of experience with courses via Penn State’s World Campus. He said Johnson’s experiences show the differences between classroom instruction and online classes.
“I remember Allen Johnson well,” Turgeon said. “He was an excellent student with a thirst for knowledge. I specifically remember how he attempted to bridge his field experience with the material he was learning in the lessons.”
Turgeon explained that, while online course versions are very similar to resident classroom versions, distance education is a different educational option, with unique strengths and weaknesses.
“In some respects, the courses are more challenging, as we add written exercises to the lessons, quizzes and exams to assess the students’ abilities to express the concepts accurately in their own world,” he said. “Each student has a unique background and intellectual capacity, and the classroom teacher must find an appropriate mid-point in pacing and depth.
“With an online class, however, I can create learning resources that fit the student rather than teach to the middle. The students can access those resources at their own pace and go forward or backward as suits their needs. Students who don’t need extra support can move faster.”
Turgeon said in transitioning a resident course for the online environment, he tries to keep everything pretty much the same.
“Obviously, we don’t have hands-on laboratories or field trips, as the students are, for the most part, already working in the field,” he said. “We do, however, expose them to laboratory data so they can properly interpret it and make use of the results for informed decision making.
“We look for maturity, discipline and commitment. Since the vast majority of our online students are working in the field, they enroll in our programs so they can acquire the qualifications needed to advance in their profession and realize their potential.”
Johnson is a perfect example of that, using his online turfgrass education to reach the top echelon of sports-turf management.
“It’s rewarding,” he said. “There’s pressure to perform. It’s important to a lot of people, so you have high expectations.”